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This weekend’s ArtLabs, spinoffs from the big contemporary art fair downtown, involve a ton of people, ideas and local artists. I asked Susan Myrland, ArtLabs curatorial director, to write about her perspective for Behind the Scene about what insights into San Diego’s art community these projects lend. Here’s what she shared:

What’s your background in the arts?

I come from a family of artists: My grandmother was a watercolorist, my mother was a sculptor, my brother draws and my sister is a potter. I grew up around art, and the balance (or tension) that exists between creating for yourself simply because you love doing it, and creating to exhibit and sell.

I took painting and art history classes at San Diego Museum of Art and UCSD, then enrolled in Mesa College’s Museum Studies Program, where Alessandra Moctezuma teaches theory and practice of curation. I discovered that I loved curating and it drew on skills I’d learned in previous careers.

Why did you pick a San Diego-specific curatorial framework?

San Diego grapples with its identity. We are preoccupied with what we’re not or what we don’t have. Lucia Sanroman recognized this in “Here Not There” at MCASD last year. Speaking on a panel at Art San Diego 2010, she said, “A place defined by what it is not is constantly slipping towards ambiguity.” That stuck with me and it seemed logical to start the first curated series of ArtLabs by asking people to state what San Diego is.

What have been the moments so far that make you think this thing is special?

The first was when I was reviewing the proposals and seeing commonalities. I saw a “San Diego style” emerging. It has the same characteristics as our high-tech economy: small, smart, adaptable, and entrepreneurial.

Our style is also binary, with little middle ground. San Diego has large institutions and small start-ups; a rich history of conceptualism and an embarrassing love of pictures with whales; the refinement of La Jolla and the scrappy energy of East Village/North Park/Barrio Logan. It was exciting to see this dual nature reflected in the ArtLab concepts.

The projects took shape over the summer. Artists recruited their friends, teachers, and mentors. They brought in people they wanted to work with and present to the Art San Diego audience. It’s become a postmodern, crowd-sourced, group-curated show with over 230 people involved.

Recently I went to a rehearsal for Adjacent Possible, Space4Art’s multimedia performance based on the work of Stuart Kauffman. Even late at night people were still energized, the dancers swaying and stretching and hopping around; the directors figuring out the choreography. I sat on the steps leading up to the live/work spaces, watching the performers against a backdrop of city lights. My phone buzzed with text messages. I was overwhelmed by the sense of teamwork and the effort and creativity the ArtLabs had sparked.

People are having fun with it. The Periscope Project took their retrofitted Predator Drone Box around town, pushing it across the railroad tracks to NASSCO / General Dynamics and hauling it up to General Atomics. That was priceless.

Alexander Jarman and Savannah Jarman are assembling 1,000 feet of found fabric into a picnic blanket to lay out on the Hilton Lawn for San Diego’s largest-ever picnic, inviting the public to have a discussion about our civic future while watching a giant puppet parade. Our city is thought to be conservative, but we have a wacky side, too.

The ArtLabs touched a nerve. We’re not Los Angeles or Portland or San Francisco — we are San Diego. We make art by any means necessary and our artists want respect. They want recognition and support from the public, media, collectors, gallerists, and local leaders. Sometimes that manifests as chronic discontent — but in the case of the ArtLabs, it coalesced into a citywide statement: “This is who we are.”

Susan Myrland is the ArtLabs curatorial director for the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair, happening Thursday through Sunday.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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